‘Education Saving Account Bill’  for Families with Special Needs

By Wyayn Rasmussen, Head of School

Recently, I needed to do a self reflection in preparing for my principal’s license. I am creating a portfolio of evidences to present to the Minnesota Board of Education next fall. I’ve included many of the things I do here on a daily basis, things like written policies and procedures, English Language Arts standards, and employee performance process. I noted that I had one standard in particular that I hadn’t had an opportunity to attain yet:

E2. Demonstrating the ability to involve stakeholders in the development of educational policy.

I never dreamed, at the time, that I would be asked to present at a press conference and a congressional committee hearing and touring state legislators around our school in just a couple of weeks. Last Monday, March 9, I presented to a roomful of reporters on a new bill being introduced to the house and senate. It wasn’t a large room. In fact, it was a small room, but it was definitely full. I had been asked by Tim Benz, President of the Minnesota Independent School Forum, to speak on the behalf of our parents in support of HF 1529 and SF 1313, the Education Savings Accounts For Students With Special Needs Act (ESA Act). Parents Amy-Christensen-Bruce and Cheryl Smith, and Director of Advancement, Lindsey Brandt were in the room with me for moral support.

Senator Hann and Representative Fenton presented an overview of the bill first. The ESA Act gives the parents of a child with special educational needs the power to direct their child’s per pupil funding and allocated special needs education dollars in ways parents believe can optimally serve their child. Then Russ Gregg, Head of School for Hope Academy in Minneapolis spoke. “Hope Academy ‘s mission is to serve students within the inner-city neighborhoods of Minneapolis”. He added that many of Hope Academy’s students have special needs and that this bill would allow them access to more services.

 

“He never left the entryway. But he was never alone.”

Then my turn. I had prepared my requested 2 minute speech and had it listed in bullet points so I wouldn’t forget anything. I wanted to share the success stories of a couple of our students. I realized I had the room’s attention as I began to share the mission of Academy of Whole Learning and tell the students’ stories. “Our mission at Academy of Whole Learning is to provide personalized learning paths for qualifying students with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities. The beginning of school can be very difficult for our students, since transitions are inherently difficult for students with autism or intellectual disabilities. One student never made it past the front entryway his first day of school. He made it into the classroom the second day, one slow step at a time. It took him an hour and a half. I stayed with him and got to know him. Time well spent in my book. Now he just gets out of the car and walks straight down the hall to his classroom. Switches between classes aren’t difficult for him at all anymore. He went out for basketball and is on our varsity Special Olympics basketball team. In January we had a school dance. When he came into the building that evening, he hesitated. He was not used to music blasting out of the cafeteria. He never left the entryway. But he was never alone. The other students, upon their own initiative, took turns staying with him in the entryway. Ask any of our students about the Snowflake Social and one of the highlights will be the hangout time in the entryway.

“She was terrified to go to school”

 

We have another student who struggled for years with her sensory processing difficulties. She was terrified to go to school, and when her parents felt they had no other choice but to let her stay home occasionally, the school social worker threatened to call social services on them. The environment felt so overwhelming to her that she had conditional procedures written into her IEP. That means that it was determined that when she began to panic, she required a 3 person hold. Her parents sought a safer environment for her at Academy of Whole Learning. I can honestly say I have never seen her panic to that extreme. She has not missed a day of school is two years. Now that the environment in the classroom is calm, the lights are low and the sensory recharges are happening every 20 minutes, she has reengaged in her learning, making well over two years’ worth of growth in the past 1 ½ years”.

 

I looked around the room and realized that the reporters were intrigued by the students’ stories. I didn’t want to lose their interest, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to share the stories of the parents either. “While our school is located in St. Louis Park, we have families coming from as far away as Oakdale, Stillwater, Andover and Minnetrista.  Clearly families are looking for more options to meet the individualized needs of their children. The more people hear about our school, the more our inquiries are increasing exponentially. In January and February of this year, we’ve had the same number of inquiries as we had all of the 2013-14 school year. The biggest reason parents decide not to attend our school is the tuition.  Even this year, we have two families who have made the sacrifice to pay the tuition over the past several years and can no longer afford it. They will not be back next year. That breaks my heart.

“The biggest reason parents decide not to attend our school is the tuition.”

The Board of Directors of Academy of Whole Learning have had many heartfelt discussions on how to increase access for the economically disadvantaged so they too, could have access to our specialty services. This bill would decrease the inequities currently in the system and allow families from a wider socio-economic base to access educational options that meet the individual needs of their children. I believe that parents know their children best and are their best advocates.

There is a letter going around on Facebook right now from a parent of a student with an IEP who is also a teacher.  As a parent, she knows what services her son needs, as a teacher she knows it will be impossible to provide him with those services. Her letter was a cry to change the way we provide special education services. She just wants what is best for her son. This legislation will allow parents, without regard to their own financial resources, to access the educational services beyond what their local school districts offer.”

Evidently the stories were poignant enough to warrant the attention of the legislators in attendance. I have been asked, along with parents Amy Christensen-Bruce and Melissa Sirek, to give our testimonies to the House Education Innovation Committee on Friday morning at the State Capitol.

Then, yesterday, I was contacted by Senator Hann, who asked if he could bring a group of congressional leaders to tour our school on Wednesday, March 18, to see the ‘magic’ first hand.

At least when I meet with the Minnesota Department of Education next fall, I will be able to demonstrate that I was able to “involve stakeholders in the development of educational policy”. The Academy of Whole Learning doesn’t just help the students meet their goals, it also helps the principal meet her goals.